About this Article
Written by: Brian Lobo
Written on: July 20th, 2005
Tags: civil engineering, lifestyle, mechanical engineering, transportation
Thumbnail by: David Pirmann/
About the Author
Brian was a senior majoring in Biomedical Engineering in the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. While studying abroad in Madrid, he was surprised by the ease of use of the Madrid Metro and realized the high price of gasoline in Spain was not the only reason a large portion of Madrile├▒os utilized the system.
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Volume VIII Issue II > The Metro: The Engineering Behind Madrid's Most Valuable Asset
Almost every major metropolis around the globe has a mass transit system. When executed properly, these can be the most economically and physically efficient means of moving large populations through a city. Unfortunately, only a few of these systems in the United States have been designed or operated well enough to merit recognition; namely, Boston and New York. Outside the United States, mainly in Europe, this is not the case. London is famed for its underground, as is Paris. One less known example that has proven extremely popular, safe, and effective has been the Madrid Metro. Engineers have paid significant attention to seven characteristics that make a successful Metro system. By engineering responses to factors ranging from reliability to safety, the designers of the Madrid Metro have set an example for those looking to improve their own mass transit capabilities.


Proxima estacion: Canal. Correspondencia con: Linea Dos...
Within a week of arriving in Madrid, I could perfectly recite the announcement that airs on Metro Line Seven's loudspeakers just before pulling into the Canal Station (see Fig. 1). Rather ironic, considering that while preparing for the Viterbi School of Engineering's Summer Overseas Program, I expected to cloud my memory with other things from Europe: great nightlife, amazing beaches, Smart Cars, and enjoying the World Cup in pubs and city squares.
David Pirmann/nycsubway.or​g
Figure 1: Subways are nothing unusual in America, but they are a great asset in Madrid.
Although those sights more than exceeded my expectations, I never realized I would be so captivated by what I see as Madrid's most overlooked asset: the Metro, the city's underground subway system. However, subway systems are nothing new. In fact, almost every major US metropolis including Los Angeles has some sort of a metro. Unfortunately, they lack the popularity and public embrace of their European counterparts.
Why? The answer becomes clear when one begins to ride the subway everyday, slowly noticing the myriad types of passengers who use the metro, along with the emotion that accompanies each ride. The environment separates the Madrid Metro from most American subways. From the moment one descends the unassuming street level steps to enter the station, until again reaching the surface, travelers feel comfortable, oriented, and most importantly, safe. How the Metro achieves this is far from dumb luck; engineers and designers have anticipated, coordinated, and accounted for human behavior with careful calculation.

A Little About the Metro

Inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII of Spain in October of 1919, the Madrid Metro began service on Line 1 between Sol and Cuatro Caminos. By about 1970, almost all of the first 5 lines had been completed [1]. Currently, the metro extends 226 km and has 236 stations. However, by 2007, the system will be expanded to 283 km with 281 stations, making it the second largest European metro network after the London Underground [2]. With 10 lines, the Madrid Metro covers almost the entire city area and at its deepest lies 48 meters underground.

How to Gauge Success

Physically, the Metro shares much with its counterparts. Like any other metropolitan rail system, it has several lines, stations, and interchanges. Apart from its peculiar 1445 mm rail gauge (distance between each rail on a single track), it is relatively indistinguishable from other subways [3]. Tunnel excavation occurred using many of the standard tunneling techniques, including Cut and Cover, and EPB, and the majority of its rail cars are not up to date. In fact, the Madrid Metro doesn't even make the top world subway list on the Travel Channel [4]. But somehow, the Metro ferries over 565 million passengers per year [5], in a city whose population is just over 5 million [2].
So how does one go about explaining such success? Daniel Boyle, Peter Foote, and Karla Karash, experts at the Transportation Research Board, prepared a report in 2000 detailing how to market public transportation in the new millennium [6]. In the report, the transportation scholars described seven "key value" characteristics that they felt were essential regardless of demographic. These include (1) convenience, (2) comfort, (3) a sense of making the "smart" choice, (4) affordability, (5) extensive mobility for transit-dependent riders, (6) a combination of economics and the negative aspects of automobile travel for those who opt for transit, and (7) reliability and dependability for all groups. The Metro not only fulfills these seven requirements, but exceeds them, providing residents and visitors to Madrid a truly useful transportation option.